CULLOWHEE – Although Western Carolina University is focusing much of its institutional energies these days on fostering regional economic development and preparing students for successful careers, higher education must never abandon its traditional responsibility of producing educated citizens.
That was the message from Western Chancellor John W. Bardo in opening remarks at a daylong summit Monday, Nov. 8, on the topic of civic engagement and community building. About 400 people – including government officials, business leaders, students and concerned citizens – attended the “Renewing America” summit, hosted by Western’s Public Policy Institute.
While Western and other institutions of higher education are concentrating on economic development, high technology and career-focused education, “that doesn’t diminish the responsibility of the university to create an educated citizenry,” Bardo said in opening remarks titled “Community Engagement: The Challenge Ahead.”
“From the beginning, education has been linked to society’s needs. It is because of community and the structure of community that public education was created. That hasn’t changed,” he said. “What this summit is about today is the very essence of why we exist as an education system. The education system was not created simply to educate. It was created to educate for the purpose of producing good citizens.”
Kyle Carter, Western’s new provost, said that Western and other institutions are working to help overcome years of neglect of the importance of community and engagement.
“The last decade has been called the decade of disengagement,” Carter said. “That concerned higher education, and higher education began to write about it, began to hold sessions like this, and began to develop projects to encourage people to get back to being involved in democracy.”
Carter highlighted one such program – the American Democracy Project, an effort sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and the New York Times to address the country’s decreasing rate of participation in civic life, including voting, advocacy and other forms of civic engagement. Western is among about 150 colleges and universities nationwide involved in the program.
And although many pundits have pointed to increased voter turn-out in the most recent election as evidence of increasing civic engagement, Karen Miller, past president of the National Association of Counties, reminded the audience that about 40 percent of eligible U.S. voters did not participate.
“We hear that six out of 10 eligible voters cast votes in the recent election, and we’re supposed to feel good about that,” said Miller, who delivered the summit’s keynote address. “But something is wrong when four out of 10 people do not exercise what I consider to be their basic right. And we consider this a victory?”
As a long-time county commissioner in Boone County, Mo., Miller said there is much that elected officials can do to help encourage citizen participation, including improvements to transportation to give people more time to spend with family and community, mixed used planning and walkable communities, and affordable housing. But much responsibility also rests with citizens themselves, she said.
“If you believe that citizen participation and civic engagement are the key to securing a better future for Americans, I challenge you to take what you have learned here today back home with you. But do not keep it to yourself. Share it with political leaders and business leaders in your communities,” Miller said. “The world is really run by those who show up. Don’t let someone else make all these decisions for you.”
During the summit, panels of experts examined a variety of topics related to civic engagement, including building civic skills, the role of the media, community-oriented government, and increasing public input. The day concluded with open discussion of strategies to improve greater citizen participation. A policy report will be issued at a later date.
Sponsors of the summit, in addition to Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute, were the Asheville Citizen-Times, City of Asheville, Macon County government, Haywood County government, The Horowitz Foundation and Western’s department of political science and public affairs.